Concentration (actual)

Alexander vs. the ‘mainstream’ – part 3(b)

I suggested in my last post that Alexander’s writings describe at least three different kinds of activities that go by the name of “concentration” (You can read that post here). So, today we find ourselves in the middle of a trilogy of concentration articles. (Like all good trilogies, I suspect it will end up having four parts, but for right now I’m calling this the middle)

Alexander’s long tirade against “so-called concentration”, which we looked at last time, grew out of his observation that almost everyone who engages in concentration will almost inevitably exhibit the “unusual condition of the body” that he described. 

However, the fact that almost everybody does it, does not mean that there is any direct or necessary causal relationship between the two activities. 

So, what if someone could be trained to engage in actual concentration without any physical component? Would that make Alexander happy?

Nope. Not even slightly. 

In fact, he described this process as a “disastrous and narrowing concept”. 

Too much information

The number of pages that Alexander devoted to debunking “concentration”, his general tone, and the repeated complaint about our almost “universal belief in concentration”, suggests that he was gunning for a particular group, or a popular movement that was around at the time. There were quite a few to choose from in the early 20th century.

A prime example would be the Pelman exercises for memory and concentration, which were very big business back then. By the beginning of the 1920s, the Pelman society boasted half a million members in the UK, which is a huge following for that period. And this was exactly the kind of narrow, specific exercise process that got up Alexander’s nose.

Then there was “The Power of Concentration” by Theron Q Dumont (real name: William Atkinson). This guy was part of the “New Thought” movement, which came in for some criticism in Alexander’s first book. So, he’s definitely a candidate.

And then there was the infamous Gerald Stanley Lee, who shamelessly plagiarised Alexander’s work in the early 1920s – another fan of concentration.

(It is interesting to note that the Pelman movement had vanished by the end of the ‘20s and, coincidentally, Alexander largely stopped mentioning it from that time onwards.)

Whatever the truth of the matter, Alexander clearly felt it was important to challenge this belief in the power of “concentration”. 

His second book alone contains a long section on “mind-wandering”, in which he argues (for 7 pages!!) that concentration cannot possibly be the answer, a detailed analysis of the problems concentration can cause in a golf lesson, as well as another whole chapter devoted to the nature of concentration. 

You probably have a life. 7 pages on “mind-wandering” is not likely to brighten your day right now. Fortunately, there is some good stuff in that golf section, which I hope will be enough to at least get you wondering whether this concentration thing is all it’s cracked up to be.

I am not a fan of golf. You may or may not be a fan, but it is a really useful illustration, which is probably why Alexander used it quite a lot.

It’s important to remember that this is not just about golf.

You could just as easily substitute snooker, or painting a ceiling, or cooking, or trying to get a pair of shoes on a small child, and the conclusion would be the same: concentration doesn’t help. 

One object

Chambers dictionary defines concentration as “to direct one’s thoughts or efforts towards one object”. There are, of course, variations on that definition between different sources, but they almost all come down to the idea of being focused on one thing exclusively.

Maybe you can already start to see the problem.

Think about all the different things that have to be on your mind in order to make a golf stroke. It’s not just the different elements of the physical act — the grip, the stance, the shoulder movement, the hips, the follow-through, and so on — but you also need to be thinking about the target, and you might want to consider keeping your eye on the ball.

So, towards which one of these single elements are you going to direct your thoughts or efforts? And what will happen to all the other elements when you do? Here is Alexander’s conclusion:

It will be safe to assume that after the performance of the first stroke the teacher will have noted some particular fault or faults, to which he will draw the attention of the pupil, and it is equally safe to assume that the pupil … will start to concentrate upon the different corrections suggested by the teacher in connection with the fault or faults pointed out to him, after which he will make another shot, i.e., “try again.” It will be found that in this attempt the pupil has already decided that one or other of these corrections is the all-important one, and so he will proceed to concentrate specially upon it, to the practical exclusion of the others,

Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, Mouritz 2016, p.240

I don’t think this is especially hard to imagine. This is the very definition of “concentration” isn’t it? Given a list of things to think about, the student decides which is most important and directs his thoughts to that one object.

Now, although it is quite possible that by this plan of concentrating on the corrections he may succeed in eradicating some specific fault or faults, the point I wish to emphasize again is that he will have gained this end at the expense of overlooking some other equally important corrections in consequence of his having concentrated upon one at a time. By this process of concentration, therefore, as we have pointed out in an earlier chapter, he will probably have added to his list of faults. 

I have to say that my experience of teaching drum lessons absolutely matches Alexander’s description. The single biggest obstacle students face is that while they are focused on one aspect of the task, things go awry somewhere else.

The teacher in this illustration actually comes out looking quite good compared to some examples Alexander used. The assumption here is that the student is already hooked on concentration, so this teacher hasn’t actually committed the ultimate sin of telling the student to concentrate. 

I’ll bet some of your teachers have, though, and I know that some of mine have.

Do you see, though, that any complex or specialised activity is going to involve more than one action, and require you to use different parts of your body simultaneously? Therefore, the idea of concentrating during this process makes no sense. In fact, my claim is that it would reduce your chances of success.

When concentration is the problem

To make this clearer, let’s take the example of a golf student who takes his eye off the ball, despite being told many times to keep his eye on the ball. 

It is very tempting for a teacher to conclude that the student is not concentrating. I can see the logic of this — every time the student swings the club, he forgets this really important piece of information, therefore he needs to concentrate more. 

Seems reasonable, on the face of it, but what if the student takes his eye off the ball precisely because he is concentrating? 

If he is concentrating on his grip, or on his hip movement, then of course he is going to forget about his eyes. And if he is told to concentrate on keeping his eyes on the ball, he is effectively being told to forget about his grip, and everything else. That’s what the word means. 

Basically, concentration is the wrong tool for the job.

We can see from this example that both of the two varieties of “concentration” that we have looked at so far would cause problems for the golfer (or the cook, or the parent). 

“So-called concentration” with its unusual bodily condition would clearly get in the way of a decent stroke. And if you could avoid that condition and engage in actual Chambers dictionary concentration, you would still get in the way of a decent stroke because concentration is an inappropriate tool for a complex activity.

If you want to succeed in any remotely complex activity, you need something else entirely. You need a mental process that can encompass all the elements of that activity. 

Next time, at last, we will take a look at Alexander’s alternative and start to get a flavour of “something else entirely”.

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By Simon Gore

Simon teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol, England, and is a course coordinator for the ITM teacher training programme.

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